By R.J. Harlick
"Have you noticed that the jacket blurb for a lot of literary novels has been saying "a great mystery" or "a nail-biting thriller" recently? As a mystery writer, what do you think is going on? And also, what non-genre novel do *you* think is a great mystery?"
I imagine it’s a simple matter of economics. Mysteries sell. Literary fiction not so much unless a book has won an award, like a recent winner of a big Canadian literary prize, which had only sold a few hundred books prior to winning. Every once and awhile someone does a report on reading habits and mysteries are invariably at the top. So maybe a publisher is hoping by adding the words ‘a great mystery’ in the jacket blurb they will sell a few more books. But I suppose I am being a bit cynical.
I have read some very good mysteries by literary authors that did set out to write one. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin comes to mind. It not only won the Booker prize but also the Hammet, an award given out specifically to crime fiction with a literary bent. Her Alias Grace was also an intriguing read. Michael Ondaatje, best known for his novel The English Patient, also had a literary novel, The Cat’s Table, nominated for the Hammet. While it is about the exploits of a couple of boys on a sea voyage, a mystery is at the core.
I mustn’t forget Andrew Pyper who is considered a literary thriller writer. I can’t speak on the merit of his books, since I’ve never read one. They are too scary for me, but they have won numerous awards and several are in the process of being adapted to film.
I suppose one of the literary mysteries that has stuck with me is Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. It was a fabulous book and I believe was made into a movie.
But what makes a mystery literary or not, I’m not so sure. As Meredith wrote yesterday, often they are considered more character driven than plot driven. But many of the best selling series are popular because of their characters and not necessarily their plots. I think literary mysteries tend to have less dialogue and more descriptive, often poetic passages, more internal monologues and flashbacks with less hands-on action. But no doubt there are exceptions. I hate to use the word ‘formula’, but mysteries with a literary slant tend to be less formulistic with often very original approaches to story telling, but so can’ genre’ mysteries. I have a feeling the line is very blurry between the two, if there are two different types of mysteries…
On another note, I am off to Portland, Oregon next week to attend one of my favourite conferences, Left Coast Crime. I’m really looking forward to it and hope to see some of you there. I’m on the Great Outdoors: murder in nature panel on Sunday at 11:00 am. A bummer I know, being on the last panel of the conference, but if you are still in Portland drop by and say hello.